two solitudes: Alan Sawyer's views on the media industry

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Press: Couch potatoes of the world, unite!

We have nothing to lose but our addiction to the TV schedule

The Edmonton Journal

The ideal television viewer is trapped. There are sets in the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen and even the bathroom. The ideal television viewer tunes in with millions of others at the same time, to participate in a mass social event. The Grey Cup, Canadian Idol, or Oprah Winfrey upbraiding James Frey for being a liar.

According to a study by IBM Business Consulting Services, released this week, the ideal television viewer belongs to a group called the "Massive Passives." MPs remain the largest group of consumers in North America but their numbers are beginning to dwindle.

More than anything else, television is a delivery system. Ten years ago, the black box was the only way to access Seinfeld, according to a schedule designed by broadcasters. Viewers were forced to organize their lives around these schedules. Broadcasters sold ads according to this fortunate situation, for which executives today are already feeling nostalgic.

The IBM study, entitled The End of TV as We Know It, looks at the way on-demand, self-service technology like TiVo will disrupt the television "schedule" so completely that the broadcasters could lose control of content. Then there is the iTunes model, which will allow viewers to become independent programmers, choosing from a menu of sitcoms, dramas and sports events. Over the next five or six years, the potato will be liberated from its couch.

In the last while, all of my memorable television experiences have been plucked from shelves at video stores. I watched The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Trailer Park Boys according to my schedule. Unless I am in a hotel room, the only time I ever see The Daily Show is on the Internet. In June, I'll begin watching a weekly 30-minute Bill Maher web show on Amazon called Fishbowl.

The most interesting and curious aspects of The End of TV as We Know It are the implications for Canadian television. Until now, Canadian broadcasters have made most of their profits with American content. They are required by law to support and produce Canadian content, but they have often worked harder to get around the regulations than to tell homegrown stories with serious budgets.

In the future, as entertainment becomes borderless, CHUM, CTV and CanWest Global won't be protected by the CRTC. They won't be able to substitute Canadian Tire ads for American pharmaceutical plugs when they're simultaneously showing Survivor or CSI: Miami. In fact, the whole notion of a program interrupted by commercials could fall away, replaced by another advertising strategy.

It will be all about content, Canadian content competing in the global marketplace of sitcoms, dramas, reality shows, movies, news and sports.

The End of TV as We Know It calls non-MP viewers "Gadgetiers" and, somewhat unfortunately, "Kool Kids." These consumers are the ones to watch, as they jump on technological advances and experiments. CBC is reportedly planning to "broadcast" Winter Olympics coverage in February to cellular phones. You can bet the industry will be taking notes.

If this spells doom for traditional players in Canadian television, it will be unfortunate for local news. However, if Canadian producers are willing to extract themselves from the old model early, they can start selling and packaging their content to Gadgetiers and Kool Kids -- and, somehow, to advertisers -- before the broadcasters and cable companies can catch up.

Canadian musicians and novelists have succeeded beyond our borders. Film and television producers, tap dancing for rich broadcasters who aren't interested in their ideas, have not thrived. However, if they're creative and nimble, and if they can find an audience in the new, borderless world of visual entertainment, the broadcasters' nightmare could be the storytellers' dream.

Read Todd's blog at

© The Edmonton Journal 2006


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